Monthly Archives: April 2014

A de Havilland Dragon Rapide Flight Over London

For this week’s post I am going to dive back into my own photo collection, and back to 1980 when my early interests in London, flying and photography all came together.  I found an advert for flights over London in a de Havilland Dragon Rapide. Cannot remember where I found the advert, it was probably one of the London evening papers. This was in the days before the Internet and to apply for tickets the process was to send a letter with a cheque and sit back and wait hoping that I would get one.

Thankfully I did, and on the booked Saturday when remarkably for British summer weather, it was ideal flying weather, it was a drive down to Biggin Hill in Kent.

The Dragon Rapide entered service in 1934 as a short haul commercial passenger transport with a crew of 1 and capacity for 8 passengers, and was designed and built by the de Havilland company who also manufactured aircraft such as the Gypsy and Tiger Moth and during the war the Mosquito, along with Britain’s first commercial jet airliner, the Comet.

The Dragon Rapide for my flight was G-AIDL which was manufactured in 1946 by Brush Coachworks of Loughborough under licence from de Havilland.

The Dragon Rapide 1

 de Havilland Dragon Rapide G-AIDL ready to go at Biggin Hill.

Biggin Hill is about 12 miles from central London and from the airport there is a good view over to the city. The weather was good, the plane was ready and boarding started.

Everyone had a window seat as there were two lines of seats against the edge of the plane with a very small passengerway in the middle. Very small and cramped compared to passenger planes of today, and very noticeable how thin the construction was between the passenger cabin and the outside of the plane.

Inside the Rapide

Inside the Rapide. This is what passenger flight used to be like. Everyone had a very good view. The door lock does not too strong though !!

The two propeller engines started and we taxied to the runway and were quickly away and heading towards London.

The flight was relatively smooth, but noisy due to the proximity of the engines and the non existent sound proofing in this age and type of plane, but that was part of the enjoyment and if it was quiet it would not have been the same experience.

At the relatively low height and slow speed it was easy to follow the landmarks below and see those of central London slowly getting closer.  The flight crossed the Thames at Greenwich, flew to the east of the city, turned and followed the same route back. This allowed passengers on both sides of the plane to get the same views of central London and to the east.

Limehouse basin

In the above photo we are crossing the Thames to the west of the Isle of Dogs. The Regents Canal basin is clearly seen in the lower right of the photo with the Limehouse Cut leaving the basin diagonally from the top corner. The Regents Canal leaves the basin roughly in the middle of the basin and passes the tower blocks and then the gasholders.

As I was sitting on the right of the plane, my first views of central London came when the plane turned and we started to head back.

Many of my photos are slightly blurred. I was taking photos from a moving object which was also vibrating so it was a challenge to get a good photo. This was also the days of film photography with the standard maximum film cartridge of 36 photos so I also had to ration how many I took, we would be past a location before I could change a film. This would not be a problem now with digital photography and a memory card capable of storing many thousand of high quality photos.

Central London

Despite these challenges, the photo above was almost perfect.

Christ Church Spitalfields stands out well in the lower right of the photo with Spitalfields Market in front of the church. Slightly above and to the left of Spitalfields Market is Liverpool Street station, and to the left of the station, the buildings of the City of London with the (as it was at the time) National Westminster Tower having just been completed and the tallest building in the city.

City and Thames

The second photo as we passed the city also came out well and shows Fenchurch Street Station to the lower right and St. Pauls to the right of centre. Still not that many tall buildings between the centre of the city and the river. The bridges starting with the bridge closest are London Bridge, railway bridge into Cannon Street station, Southwark Bridge, Blackfriars rail and road bridges

The gleaming white building between London Bridge and the rail bridge into Cannon Street station is Mondial House. This was a Post Office (British Telecom) building completed in 1975 which hosted one of the largest telephone switching systems in Europe and was a major international telephone exchange. Changes in telephone technology made the services provided within the building redundant by the late 1990’s and it was demolished in 2006.

Note that the Monument was very visible just to the right of London Bridge.

All too soon, the flight headed back along the Thames before turning back to Biggin Hill over Greenwich, giving some superb views of Greenwich, Blackheath and back towards London.

Greenwich 1

Looking down on Greenwich Park

Greenwich 2

 Greenwich and the edge of Blackheath

Greenwich 3

Looking back towards a very hazy city.

We landed back at Biggin Hill all too quickly and I had a roll of 36 photos to be rushed of to Boots for developing (how digital photography has changed all this!).

London is a fantastic city to explore at ground level, however flying over the city always puts the city in context. How central the River Thames is to the topography of the city, the differences between the south and north banks of the river, the complexity and difference in style and age of the buildings from the modern office blocks to the Tower of London.

Following a quick internet search, it is still possible to take a flight in a Dragon Rapide over London. See the Classic Wings web site for flights this year. I am very tempted to take another flight for a comparison view of the city 34 years later, and this time I can book via the internet rather than post. Now where is my credit card?


The Butterworth Charity at St. Bartholomew the Great

One of the many things I love about London is that there are still customs being performed, away from the crowded “tourist” areas of the city which have been on-going for many years.

One of these is the Distribution of the Butterworth Charity which takes place every Good Friday in the churchyard of the Priory Church of St. Bartholomew the Great in West Smithfield. Within my father’s photo collection there are photos he took of this about 65 years ago, so to experience the same event, I took the short walk from St. Paul’s underground station to St. Bartholomew’s ready for the 11:30 start, where I joined a crowd of about 80 people arranged around the edge of the churchyard, on a mild, sunny April morning.

Rather than my explanation of the background to the Butterworth Charity, I will reproduce the following from the back of the Order of Service sheet:

Butterwork service text 1

The ceremony takes the form of a church service in the graveyard with the distribution of the charity part way through. The form now is a token distribution of money to a poor widow of the parish (there was only one “volunteer” for this) followed by distribution of buns to all who attended.

The following is my father’s photo of the distribution from about 65 years ago:

Dads Butterworth 4 with copy

The ceremony is held on the same flat gravestone every year. What I also find interesting in these photos are the people in the background. Note in the above the nurses in uniform, who had probably come from the adjacent St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. The widows of the parish are waiting to the right of the photo. The following is my photo from the 2014 distribution. I have converted this to black & white to give an up to date photo which compares more easily with my father’s original. Often I find that comparing a colour photo with black & white can over emphasise the differences.

DSC_1125 BW

The buildings along Cloth Fair at the back of the churchyard are the same. The tree to the left has grown considerably, fashion has changed and these days there are not so many “poor widows” in the parish to collect the distribution of the charity, however the scene has not changed that much in 65 years, and I suspect is much the same going back to the start of the Butterworth Charity over 100 years ago.

The following photos are from 2014:

The buns emerge from the church:

DSC_1117 veritcal

The procession along the edge of the churchyard:


The service:


The buns are distributed:


The following are the rest of the original photos taken by my father:

Dads Butterworth 1 with copy Dads Butterworth 2 with copy Dads Butterworth 3 with copy Dads Butterworth 5. with copy

It was a perfect start to an Easter weekend.


The Chair Repairer Found !

A few weeks ago I published a short post with two of my father’s photos of a man repairing a chair in the street. I have always been fascinated by these as the concentration and craftsmanship was clearly visible in the work being performed.

The Gentle Author included my blog on his Saturday posting at and the extra viewers and distribution across Twitter reached a wider readership than normal, and to my surprise I received an e-mail from Rachel South identifying the Chair Repairer as her grandfather, Michael George South of Ladbroke Grove.

What makes the story even better is that Rachel is the third generation in the upholstery business and chair caning, so there is a continuous line from Michael in my father’s photo to the present day.

See Rachel’s web site at: The photo of the Chair Cave on Facebook is incredible.

Rachel provided the following information about her grandfather:

Michael South was born around 1903. He was from an Irish travelling background and had grown up in west London with his father and a number of half brothers and sisters. He died in 1964 from a brain haemorrhage which it was assumed was due to his other career as a bare knuckle boxer! My mother recalls two of his half brothers one called Danny who only had one ear and another who rode a motorbike on the wheel of death. So a lively background to say the least. 

Michael usually sat in Kensington or Knightsbridge to work.

So now, after more than 60 years since my father took these photos, it gives me great pleasure to introduce again, Michael South, chair caning craftsman of Ladbroke Grove:




The View from Greenwich Park and the Isle of Dogs

There are a number of locations across London where the juxtaposition of areas where there has been really significant changes with those where there has been almost no change over many decades can be seen. One of the best locations for this is from the top of the hill next to the old Royal Observatory in Greenwich Park.

My father took the following photo in 1953 looking out across the Queen’s House and the old Royal Naval College across to the Isle of Dogs.

Old Greenwich hill

I took the following photo 61 years later in 2014 from the same location. Greenwich Park, the Queen’s House and the buildings of the old Royal Naval College have not changed. Even the paths across the park have stayed in the same position, despite the Equestrian events held on this area during the 2012 Olympics.

The view across to the Isle of Dogs is where the changes have been significant. Not just in the buildings that have changed what was a flat landscape into one where tall office blocks fill the horizon, but also in the core function of these areas, employment, traffic on the River Thames and how the landscape of London has changed over the decades.

New Greenwich hill

The area just across the River Thames from Greenwich Park is the Isle of Dogs. Here were some of the major docks that during the 19th and much of the 20th centuries were part of the complex of docks along the Thames that made London the busiest port in the world.

I took the following photo in the early 1980s. This was just after the docks had closed in the 1970s, but before the significant re-development of the docklands had started. At the time I was flying regularly between London and Amsterdam and always got a window seat as when the approach was over London the views were fantastic. I was always the one glued to the window! This is an evening photo on a route which took the flight in over Essex. across east London to the south of London to Heathrow.

isle of dogs

The Isle of Dogs is in the centre of the photo. The loop of the Thames (if I remember Geography from school this is a “meander”) around both the Isle of Dogs and the Greenwich Peninsular (future home of the Millennium Dome, now the O2) is very clear from this height.

I have added the names of the docks and the location of Greenwich Park where my father and my photos were taken in the following graphic.

London Docks Photo v3


The West India Docks were opened in 1802 and in total consisted of 54 acres of water. The Millwall Dock was opened in 1868 and consisted of 36 acres of water in the shape of an L (visible in the above photo).

The docks further east in the photo (Victoria, Albert and George V) were the last to be built in London and were the largest area of enclosed dock water in the world. The Victoria was opened in 1855, the Royal Albert in 1880 and the George V dock was opened in 1921, its’ construction having been delayed by the 1st World War. The soil excavated from the Victoria dock was used to complete the construction of Battersea Park, which until then had been partly marsh land.

The Regents Canal Dock is at the end of the Regents Canal were it enters the Thames at Limehouse. The canal connects the Grand Junction Canal at Paddington with the Thames. The canal was opened in 1820 with the dock constructed soon after.

The Greenland Dock is almost all that remains of the Surrey Commercial Docks that once covered most of the peninsular. The core of these docks was started in 1697 and with various developments lasted until 1970.

The complex of office blocks in Canary Wharf which now dominate the view from Greenwich Park have been built across the area that was occupied by the West India and South Docks. Parts of these docks remain but are now confined within an ever growing number of very tall office blocks.

The following map is from the 1940 edition of Bartholomew’s Reference Atlas of Greater London and shows this area of dockland in detail. Compare the significant number of docks that made up the Surrey Commercial Docks on the left page with the 1980s photo. These have almost all disappeared.

Docklands Map

There is a description of the Isle of Dogs in a “Peepshow of the Port of London” by A.G. Linney published in 1929:

“As has been established, its island area has been halved, but within the truncated region remaining cut off from the “mainland” many industries, mostly of a smelly sort (oil refining, chemical manufacture, candle making) are carried on; there are some timber yards and foundries. Poverty is not discernible on any wide scale, but it has to be admitted that the streets are sombrely depressing, though to my view the small streets of Millwall and Cubitt Town are boulevards when compared with the utterly drear, blank depression of those rows of houses such as one finds in pit villages of South Yorkshire and Durham”

The reference to “its island area has been halved” is to the area occupied by the docks which as can be seen from the map occupy a significant percentage of the Isle of Dogs.

The closure of the docks from the end of the 1960s to the 1970s resulted in the loss of a culture, often unique to a specific set of docks, and a chain of related industries that had made this part of London a major trading and industrial community.

It would take until the mid 1980s for any form of redevelopment to start across the acres of derelict land left after the closure of the docks, the results of which can now be seen from Greenwich Park.

Quite what the residents of the “small streets of Millwall and Cubitt Town” would have thought of the Canary Wharf development and the financial services industries that have now replaced the docks would be interesting to know.


Tideless Thames In Future London

As well as a large collection of photographs, my father also had a large collection of books about London which he started collecting during the early 1940’s as a young teenager. Most of the books are factual accounts about different aspects of London and London’s history, however some of these are plans for major projects being proposed at the time as well as reconstruction plans for London after the war.

I will be covering many of these books in my blog over the coming months and I want to start with a fascinating document which proposes a major change to the River Thames and has echoes in the Thames today.

The book is “Tideless Thames in Future London” by J.H.O. Bunge which was published by the Thames Barrage Association in 1944.

Header Page

There had been proposals for many years for a Thames Barrage with the aim of stopping the tides and providing central London with a river without any tides. The proposal compares the tides and mud flats along the Thames with other cities where damming rivers had produced effectively a slow moving lake with no tides. Boston in the USA where the 1906 damming of the Charles River had provided for the city “better health, water sports, riverside parks with the famous Boston orchestra’s loudspeaker concerts in the open are the results of this dam”. The book compares Boston with the mud banks along Putney, Fulham and Hammersmith.

The barrage would also have provided other functions which at the time were becoming critical due to the expected growth in traffic after the war, for example the provision of a road and rail bridge across the river.

So what would the proposed barrage have looked like? The  following picture from the book shows the proposed barrage at Woolwich.

Proposed Thames Barrage

The locks within the barrage were critical to the design as at the time the annual tonnage of shipping to London’s docks was well over 50 million. London was still the largest port in the world.

Note the road and rail bridges built into the overall design.

Had this been built (and it was estimated at a cost of £4.5 million and could be built in 18 months “if efficiently organised” which seems somewhat optimistic) London today would not have any tides with the river transformed into a slow moving lake.

The location of the proposed barrage is shown in the following map:


Note the integration with the North Circular Road. There is a clear parallel with the river crossing at Dartford and the M25. The first Dartford tunnel was built in 1963, the second in 1980 and the Queen Elizabeth II bridge which is the clear successor to the bridge proposed by the barrage which opened in 1991.

There were many objections to the proposed barrage and the government of the day was strongly against the proposal. There was a debate on the subject of the barrage in 1937 in the House of Lords where a number of objections were raised. The usual concerns about the costs of building and then the costs of running the proposed barrage, and also:

– the impact on the hygiene of the river without a twice daily “flushing” of the river by the tides

– the impact on shipping of having to pass through the locks. Remember at this time, the docks in central London were very busy. The Port of London Authority stated that in 1936 there were “43,000 ships and 463,000 craft of one kind” passing through the river at the proposed location of the barrage and these would have to pass through the locks.

Stand on the banks of the Thames at Woolwich now, and it seems incredible to imagine that volume of shipping passing along the river in front of you.

The Port of London Authority objections also show the difficulty in planning for large scale projects for the future. I wonder if they could have imagined what would have happened to the London docks after the introduction of containerisation and the resulting increase in the size of shipping and the move of the major port facilities out of central London to Tilbury, Felixstowe and Southampton.

Personally I am very pleased that the barrage was not built. The Thames without tides would have taken much of the life out of the river that forms the core of London and was the reason why the city came to be built here in the first place.

The mud banks to me are not to be hidden. They maintain a link to the history of London. Stand on the banks of the Thames at low tide at almost any point on it’s course through London and you will see old bricks and stones that could have come from the buildings that once lined the river. The wooden stumps of old jetties still protrude above the mud along with the stone cobbles of old slipways.

The tides also continue London’s connection with the sea. Despite being in a city with ever growing towers of glass and steel, the daily rise and fall of the river maintains a natural connection.

Some ideas from the Thames Barrage Association did get built though, but in a very different form. The extension of the North Circular across the river via a bridge across the barrage can been seen replicated in the M25 and the crossings at Dartford, and the barrage itself turned into something not to keep the water in central London, rather to keep the water out of central London in the form of the Thames Barrier.

The book includes a photo of a model of what the barrage may have looked like:

Model in garden

Note the comments about the impact of the war, and the book published in 1944 was the last gasp of the proposal. The war did though allow the Thames Barrage Association to raise some additional justifications for building the barrage, including the difficulty that the London Fire Brigade had during the war with getting water from the Thames during low tides to fight the fires caused by the bombing.

I wonder what the Thames Barrage Association would have thought of the Thames Barrier?


This is the Thames Barrier as seen from the bank at the Visitor Centre. At the time it was an ordinary high tide and the river was only about 6 inches below the river walkway. Really shows how much the barrier is needed. Inside the gates at the left is a walkway with along the wall, a profile of the River Thames from Thames Head to Sea Reach:


When you stand beside a river it looks flat. The profile really demonstrates the fall of the Thames as it drops a total of 105m from head to sea.

Reading “Tideless Thames in Future London” provided a fascinating snapshot of how London, the Docks and River Thames were viewed at the time. When the volume of shipping on the Thames and at the London Docks was expected only to grow, and London was expected to continue to be one of the world’s major ports.